“Heaven knows I’m fearful of my mind,” sings James Page on ‘Lonesome’, a string-swept highlight from his second album as Sivu. ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’, out in 2017, is a record all about addressing one’s insecurities head on. Whether it’s self-doubt, a lack of confidence or inner gremlins that kick you when you’re down, acknowledging unease is the first step towards conquering it. With that, this is a record of extraordinary beauty, sporting an honesty that can only emerge from staring deep into the darkness and coming out the other side.
It’s there in ‘Submarine’, a fluttering opener built from low-slung coos and inspired by repeated viewings of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. “You have to break your body first before you lose your soul,” Page sings, finding a comfort in his own imperfections.
That’s the spirit of ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’. Together with trusted collaborator Charlie Andrew (Alt-J, Marika Hackman), Sivu’s second album gives room for slightly detuned instrumentation, empty space and the odd break from pattern. It’s what makes the music feel more human, built from the ground up. “We weren’t fighting things,” he says, looking back on recording sessions. The pair found themselves recording in an old cottage located near Andrew’s own In The Woods festival, setting up mics to capture the space of the main hall. They even attempted recording outside, just to see what would happen. “We just wanted to try out interesting spaces, rather than doing everything to a click track or building it that way. I like the idea of doing a live take. It’s more exciting.”
The follow-up to 2014’s ‘Something On High’ arrives in a completely different context. Page was dropped by first label Atlantic shortly after his first work came out. “There was an element of my ego being shattered. I kind of had to rebuild myself. But you know what, it was really positive,” he states. He also found himself struggling with Meniere’s syndrome, a lifelong condition that saw his hearing increasingly deteriorate in the past two years. “It’s an in-ear fluid imbalance. But the last two years, it’s gotten a lot worse,” he says. “I’m deaf in my right ear, which I need a hearing aid for. That’s caused problems. But I’ve always had rubbish hearing! Ryan Adams has a similar condition, and it’s about using these people as an inspiration,” he affirms. Instead of getting swept along by difficulties, or indeed giving up altogether – he considered finishing Sivu to start a new project – collaborations with Andrew began to piece together a new record worth fighting for.
Writing took place intermittently between 2015 and 2016. Two-week sessions with Andrew pushed things to their limit – “we absolutely drove ourselves mad sometimes. There were definitely days when we thought, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing anymore’” – and Page would then spend a couple of months living with specific songs, while listening to artists like The Shins and Bright Eyes on walks round Brockwell Park. If ‘Something On High’ saw Sivu dodging a singer-songwriter status, the follow-up is a quiet embrace of those fears. “I was always scared of being a singer with an acoustic guitar. But now more than ever, that’s something I’ve found more appealing.” That’s not to say ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’ is a bare bones record of few frills – quite the opposite. Kirsty Mangan’s strings are a secret weapon, sweeping one gorgeous song towards the next. But there are also moments of sweet earnestness – like ‘Kin and Chrome’, a love song devoted to Page’s partner – with less emphasis on filling a song and more on getting to the heart of it.
At one stage, a restless Page decided to depart his Brixton flat for five days in Ullapool, Scotland. It was the first time he’d travelled for the specific purpose of finding inspiration for new songs. He describes it as the “most barren, depressing, bleak place – but in a really good way.” Writing one song a day, a neighbourly couple came round to bake bread, and they’d venture out to one of two local pubs before the night set in. But far from finding a creative spark, the trip away wasn’t a eureka moment. “I got there, and I didn’t feel any different,” he admits.
But this gave him the realisation that formed ‘Sweet Sweet Silent’’s purpose – being happy with what you have, instead of constantly searching for a great unknown. “Especially as an artist or musician, you always want more. It’s difficult to be comfortable with what you have,” he says. “[But] it feels very much like I’m comfortable with who I am. That perhaps comes with getting older,” he laughs. “With the first album, I was always looking for approval. Now that stuff doesn’t mean anything anymore. I love when people say they like this music. But so long as I’m happy with it, that’s a battle won.”
Sivu might not be seeking approval with this record, but it’s likely he’ll be flooded with praise once it comes out. Its best moments are built from lush instrumentation and the sharpest of melodies, all the while being constantly driven by a sense of experimentation – think Radiohead’s ‘Amnesiac’ under the comfort blanket of Wild Beasts’ ‘Smother’.
It’s a restless record, never contained to one state. Fidgety electronic percussion floods the senses on ‘Flies’, while the gorgeous ‘Wonder In Me’ is like staring at the clouds doused in a midsummer sun. ‘Drastic Change’ addresses how age creeps in, and ‘My Moon River’’s romantic imagery spins a tribute to Page’s late grandfather. Most striking of all is the record’s title-track, a light-footed skip into hyperspace. “Sweet silence grows,” he sings, in a chorus that unintentionally sums up the hearing problems that threatened to plague this album. “The more [Meniere’s] developed, the lyrics began to make more sense and the song took on a new life.”
After two full years out the spotlight, Sivu’s second album is less a return, more a completely fresh slate. “This record almost feels like the first one again,” Page states, rarely to get back into the swing of things. His last stint on stage was going on the road with Bombay Bicycle Club’s Ed Nash’s, for a tour as Toothless. He’s putting emphasis on smaller shows, “doing everything from the ground up,” hitting square one with the foundations of ‘Something On High’ still by his side. “I feel up for that challenge. It feels like everything’s new again. And it’s taken two years to get to this point… I’m always gonna worry about what people think. But I’m more confident with my decisions now. I had to realise why I was doing it in the first place. I lost that a little bit. And I forgot that I just love writing and playing songs.”